It often happens that the real tragedies of life occur in such an inartistic manner that they hurt us by their crude violence, their absolute incoherence, their absurd want of meaning, their entire lack of style.-- Oscar Wilde
David and I stared out over the ocean from the green pier on Catalina Island. Every few minutes, I'd point to a luminous orange Garibaldi fish and announce how amazed I was by the clarity of the turquoise water. We had six hours to kill before we would board the same ferry from Dana Point that had brought us here two days prior. This was my birthday present to David, a three-day escape from the real world, timed to fit between our return from the East Coast and the holidays (a hectic enough time, but this year we have the added stress of preparing for our first trip to Tokyo the week after Christmas). After two hours of intense relaxation, of inhaling the crisp sea air, and watching the small waves lap at the sand, I fished my phone from the bottom of my purse.
"Whatcha doin'?" David asked.
"Checkin' my messages," I answered. He approved -- we'd already been on the undersea tour, already walked the span of the boardwalk several times, and I wanted to save the last chapter of my book for the long ferry ride -- what else was there to do?
David watched as, with my phone to my ear, the smile faded from my lips and the furrows he calls my "elevens" appeared between my brows. "Heather called," I said, scrolling to her number and pressing "Dial." When I heard the first ring, I added, "My mom was in an accident, I'm calling to find out what's-- Hey ," I said into the phone when Heather answered, " What happened? "
Physically, I was still on a quaint little island with my favorite person. But every other part of me had been transported back to the real world the moment I heard my sister's voice. Heather relayed the facts.
It was a typical weekday morning in December; the air was misty and cool. My mother had left her house in Chula Vista shortly after 7 a.m. for her daily commute to her office. They say most car accidents happen within a mile and a half of home. Mom had only made it as far as the fifth house from her own when the distracted driver of a huge truck plowed into her head on, forcing her luxury sedan into a parked car. Both airbags had deployed. As a tow truck hauled away my mother's accordioned car, an ambulance hauled away my mother.
The other driver, a neighbor my mother had never met, pulled her vehicle to the side of the road, hopped out, and, wearing a nightgown, ran to her house up the street. Later, in shirt and pants, she defended her actions to the police by explaining that she had crapped herself.
My mom suffers from a rare genetic disorder for which she takes medication to thin her blood. She was transferred to the trauma unit at UCSD where, on the chance that the accident had resulted in any internal bleeding, she was given a transfusion of frozen plasma to counter the effects of her meds. Fortunately, the only injuries reported by the doctors so far were the massive hematomas on Mom's knees, and whiplash. Jane and Jenny were on their way to lend moral support, and hospital techs were administering an ultrasound.
"No broken bones, some potentially torn ligaments; with a collision like that, sounds like she lucked out," I said to David after I'd given him the lowdown. "Heather's gonna call if anything changes." A cold front enveloped the island. David was silent, gauging me. "Let's go get coffee," I suggested.
Visiting hours ended at 8 p.m. Heather had told me they would be discharging Mom at 11:30 the next morning, but when I called after noon they were still waiting for an orthopedist to meet with her. Knowing that she might be there for some time, I decided to stop by the hospital with flowers.
I held my breath as I walked down the hallway to my mother's room. Hospitals gross me out. They're filled with sickness emitters -- people exhaling contagions and leaking fluids. I swear that I can actually smell illness. Suppressing my fear that I will inadvertently inhale someone else's disease, I force myself to continue breathing. I feel the same way on airplanes and buses.
Entering her room, I saw my mother splayed on the bed. "Jesus," I said, "you look like shit." Despite my childlike honesty, or perhaps because of it, Mom smiled, happy to see me. A tray hovered over her lap, on which a half-eaten plate of broccoli and macaroni covered in a congealed yellow substance had grown cold.
Mom winced. "I hurt all over," she complained.
"I bet you do," I said, noting that the tubes dangling off of the IV needles in both of her arms were no longer connected to anything.
I held Mom's hand for a moment and then, kissing her on the cheek, I spotted the dried white crust surrounding both of her bloodshot eyes. "You have pinkeye!" I shrieked. Mom nodded. "Oh, my God, I touched you! Do you know how contagious that is? Shit."
Heather was fast on my tail as I made for the Purell dispensers, two of them conveniently located on the wall opposite my mother's bed. We pumped at them frantically, each pump yielding only the tiniest drop of antibacterial goop. I would make a horrible mother , I thought, rubbing my hands together with the desperation of a camper trying to get a fire going before nightfall. At the first sign of my child's sniffle, I'd be donning rubber gloves and a surgical mask .
When I returned to her side, my hands safely tucked into my pockets, I saw that my mother's face had morphed into a new expression of pain. It struck me that she may have misinterpreted her daughters' fervent cleansing; that while we were trying to rid ourselves of potential bacteria, this wounded woman might have thought we were trying to wash our hands of something more. Like her .
"It's super contagious," I muttered in an attempt to put her at ease. "You don't want us getting that, do you?"
"Yeah," Heather agreed. "I wouldn't want to give it to my boys."
Mom nodded and gave a half smile, half wince. She sucked air through her teeth and grimaced. "It hurts," she moaned.
"Yeah, I bet it does," I said.
I stayed for an hour as Mom relayed her story, the fear and the pain of the accident, the stress and the hassle of the aftermath. When I'd made my way back down the hallway and finally out of the building, I inhaled deeply, cherishing the sick-free air as I might cherish a 30-year-old bottle of wine I had been saving for a special occasion. When I got home, I washed my hands again and again, until they were red. In the real world, distracted drivers and germs could kill you. As I dried my hands for the sixth or seventh time, it occurred to me that while David and I were away, I had not feared either.